Danseuse au tambourin relates directly to Léger's seminal series of works from the 1950s La Grande parade and this female figure appears in reverse in the left side of the monumental composition La Grande parade, état définitif, 1954, now in the collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (see fig. 1). Léger made over one hundred preparatory drawings for this important work representing the culmination of his career. The tambourine dancer appears in the majority of the drawings the artist created in preparation for the final version, which signals her importance to the composition. The stylized female figure is here juxtaposed with climbing acrobats, clowns, a horse and wheels. For Léger, performance and the circus were a life-long passion: "If I have drawn circus people, acrobats, clowns, jugglers, it is because I have taken an interest in their work for thirty years... A year elapsed between the first state of The Great Parade and its final state. This interval corresponds to a lengthy process of elaboration and synthesis. The slightest transformation was long pondered and worked up with the help of new drawings. A local alteration often involved changing the entire composition because it affected the balance of the whole" (ibid., p. 126).
Léger reveled in the pleasure of the circus from a young age, when traveling circus troupes came to his native Argentan. The subject matter continued to fascinate him when he moved to Paris, where he frequented the legendary Cirque Médrano in Montmartre. During his subsequent exile in New York during World War II, he was became a fan of the three-ring Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circuses. Indeed, at the end of the world war, he always returned to the subject as a form of celebration of peacetime leisure activities, an expression of simple pleasures and joie-de-vivre.
The present work reveals the artist's process and incorporates the solidly linear figures that had populated Léger's best work since the 1920s. Shape and form were primary concerns for the artist, but by the last years of his career he began to incorporate narrative into his highly geometric compositions. In this picture, the juxtaposition of the curvilinear form of the tambourine and the figure's hand against the linear structure of the moveable circus organ behind her reveals the medley of shapes and forms that have become part of the contemporary landscape. Léger was fascinated with social progress, and the campers, construction workers, and circus performers that he painted in the 1950s celebrate the activities of modern life.
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